By Shankar Chennattu, Summer Times Staff Writer
When you think of Saturn, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? The fact that it is the second largest planet in the solar system? Or that the planet is a gas giant? Probably not. You would most likely think of its large and magnificent rings. Evidently, those unique rings that you recognize Saturn by are going to vanish, but fortunately for us earthlings of the 21st century, the rings will go away in about a hundred million years.
So, for now, we can still enjoy images of Saturn’s rings any time we want. You might be wondering why such an atrocious disappearance must happen to something so significant. Well, the explanation is quite simple.
The rings of Saturn are made up of ice and rock, and large chunks of them are constantly being bombarded by UV radiation. When these collisions occur, the icy particles vaporize and create charged water molecules that interact with Saturn’s magnetic field. They fall toward Saturn and burn up in the atmosphere. This process is called ring rain.
The ring rain on Saturn was actually first discovered many years ago by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Voyager mission. In the 1980s, we noticed a peculiar series of dark bands, and they turned out to be ring rain caught in Saturn’s magnetic field. Since then, scientists and researchers had predicted the complete drainage of Saturn’s rings to happen in three hundred million years. However, recent observations made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have revealed that Saturn is losing its rings at a much faster rate.
Now, it seems definitive that Saturn is going to totally lose its rings in a hundred million years. These iconic rings have been visible to us for around 400 years, but they have existed for around a hundred million years. So this is sad for us as observers of the universe, but in the long run, the disappearance of Saturn’s rings might not be as concerning as we, minuscule human beings, think it is. Perhaps, something much greater is meant to happen on Saturn.